It was on the pair of bonus discs in the deluxe package that this project really took flight. Disc 3 opened with a curveball; the “Once Upon A Time” tour arrangement of “Book Of Brilliant Things” but as sung by Sarah Brown. They probably had not played the tune in this arrangement since no later than 1991, I’d venture. It was a radically different version of the song but for the last 30+ years it had been welded to the Stadium Minds era, and tarnished by that. I liked the change of her singing the arrangement that interpolated The Doors “Five To One” into it. It was enjoyable hearing someone who could sing the hell out of the song at the mic.
Then The Bomb dropped. “I Travel” was a song that I was double hot to hear in concert. I’d only ever heard my favorite Simple Minds song once, at the 2002 concert I’d attended. But I’d never heard it like this. My go-to live version of this song was a bootleg from the “Sons + Fascination” era 1981 tour that sounded like it was barely contained chaos. That was diametrically opposed to the version on offer here. This performance of the track was burnished to a hard brilliance. Less tremolo on Charlie Burchill’s guitar. A strong vocal from Jim Kerr. It hummed along nicely with a hard clean power that was worth a lot for this song.
Then, at the tune’s midpoint, Burchill took an extended, angular solo, and instead of circling back to the relentless rhythmic fury of the song as it always had, there was a drop where the song’s frantic sequencer loop was cut out while new sequencers and synths in dubspace worked out a new energy in the familiar classic. Then a hard four-to-the-floor beat [none dare call it house…] danced among the sequencer. Next, Jim Kerr returned to vamp in the new dub slipstream of this song… on an on. After a few bars of this, a berserk synth crescendo rose up to return the energy back to the traditional sequencer rhythms and Burchill added a solo in the song’s coda before the cold hard climax with Kerr intoning “you travel!” as the last guitar note reverberated several times.
Yes, we’d traveled before, but not anything like this. I first thought that this new arrangement was the John Leckie 2012 mix adapted to live performance, but no, this was something even better than that. This was my favorite Simple Minds song being transformed in the best possible way! What were they thinking by relegating this to a soundcheck?! Why was this song played in their earliest sets then cut from the tour on the night we were seeing them? Just this song alone justified the purchase of this deluxe edition. But there was more where that came from.
We next got to hear “Blindfolded,” the excellent “Big Music” track in a searing performance. With the pensive “Honest Town” following for a “Big Music” two-fer. I’d have much preferred these last three instead of chestnuts like “Stand By Love” or especially “Dirty Old Town.” “In Dreams” was another fine “Walk Between Worlds” tracks I appreciated and “Stars Will Lead The Way” was was a strong song from the under-ranked “Graffiti Soul.” The only one here, but it was appreciated. The only black mark on disc three was the concluding “Big Sleep” in a vexing acoustic arrangement. I just looked and it’s one not on their “Acoustic” album or tour DVD, so they are still doing it! Someone please make them stop.
Disc four, began on a flat note with “Let The Day Begin,” a song I wish they would really drop after six years. Only the version on the “Big Music” album ever worked for me, and only just. But the program quickly perked up with “Barrowland Star” which wasn’t as incendiary as Burchill’s solo was on the album, but the closing aside from Kerr of “we could’a been contenders, Charlie…” was very witty. “Midnight Walking” and “Summer” were a pair of great songs from the last two albums played well here. I’m still not convinced by “Big Music,” but the version here had a lot of add libs that didn’t quite work for me from Kerr.
All of that was forgiven though when they played an incredible “Celebrate” that took on a saffron scent of Indian drone to color its loping rhythm loop in an almost psychedelic fashion. Magic! And at a full 5:44, it had the necessary repetition to mount a mighty head of steam without being undermined by its running time. Ged Grimes bass growled here like a surly lion; adding the hint of threat that every song from “Empires + Dance” absolutely needed. Like the earlier “I Travel,” this was hard and powerful. I’ve never heard a better version of this classic.
Next came the first song on this disc that I had to hear when I opened the package. A cover of Prince’s “The Cross” from “Sign O’ The Times.” The band’s take on the title track in 1987 was a huge shock at the time as well as ultimately unconvincing, but this was another story entirely. The great song was Prince at his least idiosyncratic, and therefore, an apt song to cover. And when Sarah Brown was the singer, it sounded fantastic. I like Sarah Brown getting the spotlight on a song or two. While I don’t want to hear her taking lead on “The American,” there’s room for her in the band’s nooks and crannies. If they were going to tackle a Prince song, this one worked wonderfully. Disc four ended the same was as disc three had. With an awful acoustic version of “Speed Your Love To Me” that at least the band had performed on their acoustic tour. It sounded utterly sapped of life energy. A terrible fashion to end this long live album with.
Barring three missteps, the music on the two extra discs really had some dazzle that was missing from the main event here. If I were in charge, I’d have lopped off “”Big Sleep,” “Let The Day Begin,” and “Speed Your Love To Me” to fit the potent other songs onto a single CD and everyone would be happier. SM fans should definitely opt for the executive version if you care at all by this point. What I wouldn’t give for a 40th anniversary “Empires + Dance” tour where the band played that album in its entirety. Based on the evidence here, the band could breathe new life into the classic album to take it to new places 40 years later. But that’s not to be. The band are instead flogging their hardly mandatory nth greatest hits package on a world tour.
At the end of four discs, we are left with another Simple Minds live album in a world where it can be said that there are too many of them. Let’s not kid ourselves, the best one is still “5×5 Live.” If you’re only having one, then start there. But for fans of a deeper persuasion [guilty as charged] this one offers some real highlights as long as we move straight to the bonus round. The first two discs are certainly a good modern Simple Minds live album, but there are no transcendent moves here. The set list is good. As well considered as such a triangulating thing could have been. The truth of the matter is that compared to “Live In The City of Light,” it’s a work of genius from the band! There’s no comparison to my mind between the dead boring twentysomethings coming to grips with selling out and the older, wiser band of today.
I have to admit that last weekend I listened to one of my favorite Simple Minds bootlegs to compare and contrast. It was of the band recorded in Sydney in Christmas of 1982. It’s a great show, but the fact of the matter was that Jim Kerr was not conquering worlds on the vocals. His singing was tentative and he was still developing his voice. He was the weak link on that show. Flash forward to the mid-late 80s and there’s a plethora of live recordings the band released where Kerr was ragged and haggard as if he still hadn’t learned how to sing properly so as to not damage his voice on their ever longer tours. Shocking performances that I cannot believe they allowed out into the wilds as B-sides and the like.
That was Kerr’s nadir in fronting the band as both singer and band were flailing; albeit upward with their greatest success in the marketplace occurring then. Listening to any recording of Kerr in the last twenty years and the difference is vast. He’s not a singer’s singer, but let it not be said that he does not know how to sing after 40 years. Charlie Burchill can be counted on to stick the boot in on some strong solos… when he’s not splitting his attention to the synths as well. Someone please get this band a keyboard player?
I evoked the dreaded “Live In the City of Light” earlier. That album underscores a big problem with Simple Minds live recordings that the band has released over the years. There’s a tendency for the band to overcook them in post-production and I don’t doubt that this album has some ex post facto recording going on. When it results in work as dazzling as the reborn “I Travel” I really couldn’t care less! But elsewhere, the “professionalism” saps the band’s energy to their detriment.
This band has been well represented by bootlegs that were not nipped and tucked and they are my preferred way to hear them. I really don’t care if there are mistakes and flubs as long as the energy is rushing forward. Speaking of energy rushing forward, one last observation on “Live In the City Of Angels.” Even though discs one and two are of a single performance at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles [save for a single track recorded earlier in Miami at The Fillmore], there are fadeouts between each of the songs on the first two discs! This seems insane on a live album documenting a single performance! It’s not as if they had to cut out all of Jim Kerr’s between song patter to make it fit, either. Disc one is only a hour! So why has this wholesale excision of continuity been performed on this album?
Some theorize that in an era where music is streamed instead of bought, that this make it possible to cut a few tracks form “Live In the City Of Angels” into a streaming playlist where there are no ugly and abrupt segues between a live song and the next thing to listen to. This chills my blood, but it points out how streaming is now the tail that wags the musical dog in this hellish world of the 21st century. I would have thought that the band could have prepared files for streaming to be like the cuts on this album, and maybe the CD could have had a chance to better replicate the flow and ebb of the show recorded for its bulk. Too late now. That ship has sailed.
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